At Halloween, people often tell scary stories or try and frighten each other. But truth is scarier than fiction: on Halloween Day this year–last Monday–the population of the earth officially reached seven billion. (That’s nowhere near as many as McDonald’s claims to have served, but it’s still a lot.)
7,000,000,000 people may not seem like much to you–after all, that number consists mostly of zeros–but look at it this way: if they stood on each other’s shoulders (assuming the ones below weren’t flattened like pancakes and the ones above didn’t blow up like balloons in the vacuum of space) they would form a pillar 25 times the height of the moon.
But even this desperate act wouldn’t succeed in raising their level of living, literally of figuratively. When the new millennium was dawning, a lot of pundits were confident that the advance of science would lift people out of poverty despite their rising numbers, eliminate hunger, and give most of us a higher quality of life. A decade later, there are a billion hungry humans in the world. There is now less optimism that our towering ambitions can be met.
Yet every crowd has a silver lining (and empty space some comet’s tails as well). The fact that it took us 12 years to jump from six to seven billion means global population growth is slowing down. The next increase, to eight billion, is expected to take at least 13 years. Big effing deal, you might say–but consider that a few decades ago it had been thought there would be no slowdown before we reached at least 12 billion!
Admittedly, this slowdown is too slow. At present there are shortages of arable land, drinking water and other natural resources. Food stocks have subsided while prices have skyrocketed.
So, as science isn’t working–or there are just too many idiots being born who have no use for it–we must focus on population control. The quickest solution would be for people to stop having sex. But that would leave most of us with no purpose for living; so we should at least plan our families. For this it’s essential that women be educated and empowered to decide how many children to have–a decision most woman today aren’t free to make. Women should not be treated like vassals or storage vessels.
Drastic steps like forced sterilization in India in the 1970s (or zapping female babies these days) are not the solution; while China’s one-child policy won’t work in a democracy–and would create serious imbalances between the active and retired populations. Education is the answer. (More so if one listens when the teacher says “Stop f***ing around and start studying!”)
Of course, there are those who believe every single life is precious, and each additional billion worth its weight in bullion, and so on. If they had their way, then standing on each other’s shoulders might no longer be a matter of choice.
[In Hindsight 80/Oct 31-Nov 2, 2011]